Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.
How Old Are Greek Myths?
Zeus and the other Greek gods on Mount Olympus, from Aphrodite to Poseidon, are familiar characters to many readers. The Greek stories of gods, heroes and monsters are told and retold around the world even today. The earliest known versions of these myths date back more than 2,700 years, appearing in written form in the works of the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod. But some of these myths are much older. Indeed, the Greeks borrowed some of their best material from other, more ancient stories.
Long ago, the young Greek hero Perseus set out on a seemingly impossible quest: to slay the hideous Medusa. With a head covered in snakes instead of hair, Medusa was so ugly that anyone who looked at her turned to stone. For many days, Perseus traveled in search of Medusa. Finally, he found her and her two sisters resting among the statues of other heroes, all turned to stone by Medusa's gaze. But Perseus had consulted the gods and knew how to defeat the monster. Looking only at Medusa's reflection in a polished shield, Perseus chopped off her horrible head with a sickle. The winged horse Pegasus sprang from Medusa's neck. Medusa's two sisters were furious and chased after Perseus. But Pegasus allowed the hero to climb on his back, and the two flew away to safety.
-Adapted from ancient Greek myths
The white, winged horse Pegasus is only a minor character in Greek myths, serving as the loyal steed and companion to the heroes Perseus and Bellerophon as they battle with monsters. Although Pegasus doesn't show up in many myths, he was a favorite subject of Greek artists. Even today, Pegasus is among the most popular images from Greek myth, appearing on everything from corporate logos to figures on carousels. Indeed, Pegasus is so well known that today all winged horses are called "pegasi."
At a Glance: Pegasus
- Pegasus was the son of the monster Medusa and Poseidon, the god of the seas and of horses.
- Pegasus was kind, helpful, and never greedy. The constellation named after him even shares a star with the constellation of Andromeda, a maiden he helped save.
- White horse with wings.
- Pegasus allowed only two mortals to ride him: the heroes Perseus and Bellerophon.
A Hero's Horse
A long time ago, the Greek hero Bellerophon set out to kill the fire-breathing Chimera, a beast with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail. The goddess Athena helped Bellerophon tame Pegasus, and with the winged horse's aid, Bellerophon killed the monster.
After this glorious victory, Bellerophon thought himself the equal of the gods and urged Pegasus to fly him to Mount Olympus. But Bellerophon's arrogance enraged the gods. Zeus sent a fly to bite Pegasus, causing him to rear back and sending Bellerophon hurtling to the ground. Pegasus remained at Olympus for the rest of his life, carrying Zeus's lightning bolts on his back. And when Pegasus died, Zeus transformed him into a constellation, which can be seen to this day.
--Adapted from Homer's Iliad, c. 800-600 BC, and other ancient Greek myths
Stories of Pegasus were particularly popular in the ancient city of Corinth, Greece. The winged horse was used as the city's emblem and appeared on coins of the city for hundreds of years.
A carved Pegasus figure, made by artist Joe Leonard for a private collector, is styled after the animals found on carousels. The statue's wings, however, would make it impossible for anyone to sit on the creature's back.
Many years ago, the Sphinx sat in front of the gates to the ancient Greek city of Thebes. The Sphinx was a terrible monster with a lion's body and a woman's head -- and a fondness for riddles. She asked a question of everyone who passed, eating anyone who couldn't answer. "What has one voice and walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" No one had ever answered correctly, and the Sphinx was well fed. But one day a clever man named Oedipus came along and gave the answer "man." A person crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two legs as an adult and uses a cane -- a third leg -- in old age. Distraught over being outwitted, the Sphinx threw herself off her high perch and died on the road below.
--Adapted from Oedipus Rex by the Greek playwright Sophocles (495 - 406 BC)
Where Do Greek Myths Come From?
Today, Greek myths are widely told outside of Greece--and the stories have left their mark on various cultures around the world. But many of the stories we think of as Greek myths actually have roots in other ancient cultures. For instance, at least 4,500 years ago -- more than 2,000 years before Sophocles wrote of the Sphinx -- Egyptian artists carved half-human, half-lion statues out of stone. And some 3,500 years ago, artists in Mesopotamia depicted similar creatures and may have transmitted the image to Greece.
At a Glance: Greek Sphinx
The Greek Sphinx was aggressive and hostile, often attacking and snacking on people who passed by.
- Head and torso of a woman.
- Body of a lion.
- Wings of an eagle.
The Great Sphinx of Giza has stood guard in front of the pyramids since around 2500 BC. Unlike the half-lion, half-woman Sphinx of Greek myth, the Great Sphinx combines the body of a lion with the head of a man-King Khafre, the ruler of Egypt at that time. Other Egyptian sphinxes, however, have the heads of rams or falcons. And while the Sphinx of Greek myth is cruel and aggressive, Egyptian sphinxes are considered benign symbols of powerful rulers.